Statement of Significance
Tony P. Wrenn
Faxed 29 Feb 2012
To Travis Masters, Kyle Garner, Beth Blake and Ramona Bartos
“Attached is a statement of what I believe to be the architectural importance of the Duncan House at 105-107 Front Street which has both statewide and national importance. It anchors the Beaufort Historic District, and the value of its setting and history support its architectural importance.
I hope there are plans, whatever your finding should be in the current hearing, to insure the accomplishment of a historic structure report, including a full history, including examination of its architecture and setting, measured drawings of the structure as it now exists, architectural photographs and copies of maps, historic photographs, and other documents. These should be a part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, maintained by the Library of Congress.
Loss of the Duncan House would, I believe, be a statewide and national loss.
Should there be questions, I will do my best to provide additional data if desired.”
Proposed Demolition of Duncan House, 105-107 Front Street, Beaufort, North Carolina
Earlier this month I learned that Beaufort’s Duncan House has new owners, who have applied for permission to demolish the house. The news is confirmed by an article in the Sunday February 26, Carteret County News Times “New Duncan House owners apply with town to tear down structure.” The new owner describes age, water and termite damage to the structure which could lead to just letting it “rot down,” though he thinks “too much of Beaufort to “do that.” He states “that…many structures cannot and should not be restored,” and suggests that “the Duncan House…is, in his opinion, one of those structures.”
As one who believes that the Duncan House is of state and national importance, I suggest that its demolition would be a far greater loss than some imagine. Though I am unable to develop at length, and in such a short time, all the reasons I believe this to be true, I do want to share by concern with you.
In late 1969 the North Carolina Department of Archives and History asked me to study Fort Macon and establish a file that evidenced its evolution and history. Coupled with this was the requirement that I look at the Beaufort Historic District and determine which houses within the district might have Historic and Architectural importance. I accomplished both tasks and in December 1970 delivered my report “Beaufort, North Carolina,” to the Department in Raleigh. Subsequently I was asked to survey and evaluate houses within historic districts in New Bern and in Wilmington. All three surveys led to listings on the National Register of Historic Places. They also gave me the opportunity to compare the three municipalities, all in the same area of the state, where they evolved under similar climate and cultural conditions.
Because the Duncan House sits alone on its large lot at the west end of Front Street, with water on three of its sides, if one includes the Atlantic Ocean and coastal waters across the street from the Duncan House two story porch, it is of great importance as part of the Beaufort landscape. I have found in the 42 years since I completed my survey of Beaufort, that the Duncan House is most often the one house remembered when I talk to those who have visited or vacationed in Beaufort. There are valid reasons in its memorability alone to preserve the house, but I shall restrict my comments to a summary of its architectural importance.
ARCHITECTURE: Architectural historians, who have not looked carefully at Beaufort houses, and those of other southeastern coastal areas, tend to quickly assign Beaufort houses to the Federal and Greek Revival eras when many of them were built. Such a quick identification ignores the fact that in Beaufort the Beaufort Coastal Cottage and two to two-and-a-half story Beaufort House have architectural differences which set them apart from houses of the same age to the North and West of Beaufort, and to the its south. Earlier historians and architectural historians were aware of the Beaufort House as a type not plentiful elsewhere, and wrote about them. Talbot Hamlin, in his “Greek Revival Architecture in America,” in discussing coastal houses notes:
“The architecture of North Carolina is typical of the varied local influences in much southern work…by the middle of the eighteenth century the special conditions of dampness and heat…had produced a definite local type in which the porch or piazza plays a dominant part. These piazzas were not monumental porticos but simple rows of turned posts, sometimes treated like Doric columns supporting a continuation of the main roof…[they] contribute to such coast towns as…Beaufort a feeling of elegant grandeur quite independent of the size of the houses…”
Francis Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman suggested in their 1941 work “The Early Architecture of North Carolina”:
“At Beaufort, porches are seen in the form most reminiscent of Nassau, St. Kitts, and Bridgetown, the Duncan House on Front Street being a good example. Here a two-tiered porch covers the front of the house and is protected by a shed extension of the main roof. The posts are in the form of crudely-turned Doric columns, not unlike those seen in some of the Spanish Islands…The fact that the North Carolina porch treatment came from Southward and not from Virginia is attested by almost complete lack of porches above the border…”
The porch serves a practical purpose, in that it allows air circulation throughout upper levels, and throughout uninsulated walls as well, which was most important to coastal Beaufort, where breezes were from the sea, cooling, but also moist. The evidence of how this was accomplished is still obvious on many Beaufort houses which have porches without ceilings, or that have windows or vents at floor level in the ceiling roof, or house façade.
The roof extensions that cover these porches identify the Beaufort roofline identified by Hamin—one of the most obvious indicators of the Beaufort house. I noted in my 1970 report, “The Beaufort gable roof…normally maintains a relatively steep pitch at the ridge but then breaks to cover porches in front and bays in the rear at lesser pitches…The typical roof of this kind has at least three planes, but many have four and…where the Beaufort roof reaches its maximum use…five. There is also an identifiable chimney, ‘built outside the end walls, with offsets where fireplaces occur.”
Architectural historian, Dr. Ruth Little identified other architectural features of Beaufort Houses in describing the Duncan House in her 1997 resurvey for the State as a: “remarkably intact, traditional Beaufort-style Federal two and one-half story, eight-bay, side-gable house with full-length two-story engaged porch. Plain siding, flush eaves with tapering raking cornice, two exterior end chimneys, one central chimney, 9/6, 6/6 and 4/4 sash. Porch has swelling Doric columns and traditional railing…the original east section retains its original exterior staircase located on the back porch, now enclosed. One of the only surviving brick cisterns in Beaufort is at rear.”
Dr. Little lists the number of Beaufort Coastal Cottages and Beaufort Houses within the town, “Beaufort has the largest number of coastal cottages and their variations of any historic town in North Carolina.” Little identifies 21 Beaufort Coastal Cottages and 15 two story Beaufort Houses.
My surveys in Wilmington and New Bern indicate that they do not exist in significant numbers in either of those cities, though one might expect to find them there, they were merely a coastal phenomenon. Though I have not done exhaustive surveys in Edenton or other coastal North Carolina cities, Beaufort remains the town where they were most used, and where they survive in numbers.
IT IS THIS WHICH INDICATES THE STATEWIDE AND NATIONAL IMPORTANCE OF THE DUNCAN HOUSE AND NOTES HOW CAREFULLY IT AND OTHERS WERE BUILT TO SURVIVE THE BEAUFORT CLIMATE, AND HOW SUCCESSFUL THEY HAVE BEEN AT DOING SO.
The Duncan House is an important house style and type, and its demolition would diminish not just the few of its type that exist, but much of the history of the town of Beaufort.
For almost 200 years, sailing ships entering Beaufort Inlet and Bulkhead Channel into Taylor's Creek have viewed the Duncan House anchoring the west of the Beaufort waterfront. Built by James Davis in 1815, Davis sold the original east side in 1820 to Captain Benjamin Tucker Howland; the selling price was $1000. Twelve years later, Captain Howland, father of Elicia Howland Duncan, sold the house and his part of their business to his son-in-law Thomas Duncan IV—all for only $600. Sometime after 1832, Thomas Duncan IV added the western half of the house. The lower level was built using several ships’ masts as supporting pillars. This level was used as a ship chandlery and store, patronized by visiting ships as well as local residents; it became known as “Duncan’s Store.”